I suggest that before you read this blog post you should first take off your “business owner hat” and put on your “consumer hat”; in other words, read this post as if you were the consumer.

Imagine that you are at home on a Friday night and trying to decide where to go for dinner. At one time you might have dusted off your phone book and flipped through the menu section … but if you are like most consumers today, you will go online (using a computer or your smartphone) and search for something like “restaurants+[your city]” or if you are having a particular craving “Mexican+restaurants+[your city]”. That was easy – now you have a whole list of restaurants to choose from!

All potential restaurants (whether they appear in the listings or not) fall into one of three categories as perceived by the consumer. Unfortunately perception (accurate or not) is reality and can directly affect any business.

The three categories of perception when someone searches for something online include:

1. Unknown Perception  – Who Are They? I’ve Never Heard of Them

These are the local restaurants in your area; potential gems that may not show up in the top search engine listings. These restaurants are not even on your radar to consider.  That great little Italian place three blocks away? It gets blocked out by all the other restaurants with top search engine rankings.

2. Negative Perception  – Don’t Eat Here!

These restaurants sometimes do show up in the top search results but when you go to their website there are some major flaws that immediately turn you off from eating there.  Maybe the website is out-dated (will their dining room be straight from the 90’s too?); their menu doesn’t load properly (what if I don’t like their selection or their prices are unreasonable?); or their phone number isn’t easily accessible (how will you make a reservation?). Any negative aspect of a website could turn a qualified customer away.

3. Positive Perception  – Now What Will I Order?

These are the restaurants that show up in the top search engine rankings for most of your searches AND have a great website to back their top listing. You will likely view it as a very viable option for the night’s meal. If Google puts it first, it must be one of the best restaurants in town…at least that’s the perception.

Are you beginning to see a trend here?

I know that this is a hypothetical situation (maybe it’s not so hypothetical – I admit to doing the Friday night restaurant search from time to time) and that it may seem trivial since it’s just a meal for one night.

But what if you are a large contracting company, a business consultant, a heavy duty equipment manufacturer or a global retailer? What happens when you are consistently not found first on the search engine results page?

Consumers increasingly rely on Google as a signal as to who the “best in the industry” really is. Consumers can be very skeptical of companies who do not rank for some of their most popular products – or worse yet – their own name!

The key point I want to make is this: the perception of a first page listing in Google is crucial to making a great first impression and winning new business – whether you are a restaurant selling $7.99 buffet dinners or a software developer selling million dollar services.

What do you think? How do you perceive companies who “miss the mark” and don’t rank well in the search engines for their products? How have Google listings influenced your decision making process as a consumer?